My second column appears in the issue that arrived yesterday, although it’s not online yet. The good thing about the time lag between submission and publication is that by the time it arrives, I find myself saying, “I wonder what I wrote about?” Sad, I know.
This is my first column in Christian Week (February 3, 2006) with a few minor corrections. The second column will appear shortly.
Navigating the church in a perfect storm
This is not the easiest time to be a Christian leader. Three realities have converged to make this a perfect storm for the Church in Canada.
First, Christendom has ended. Canada was once viewed as a Christian nation. Most were at best nominal Christians, but Christianity received grudging respect within culture.
Now, although most Canadians still see themselves as Christian, they have checked out of church and privatized their faith. Evangelicals are labelled scary. Ministers make the list of most distrusted professions. Most Canadians believe religious leaders are a force for good in society, but only one in 50 believe they should influence politicians.
A generation ago, proximity to a church building was a selling feature of a house. The buildings are still there, but the churches are hardly noticed. The Church in Canada has been marginalized.
Second, a massive cultural shift is taking place. Something has changed in the way that people think. We’ve moved into a digital culture driven by image and sound rather than by word. What you feel has become more important than what you think. Experience and choice are taken for granted. Not everyone has changed, and that makes it harder. A 23-year-old recently told me he no longer understands 18-year-olds.
This may have been an overstatement, but if he doesn’t understand them, what hope do I have? Many see the world very differently, and it seems to be more than a generation gap.
Third, many churches in Canada are struggling. Church attendance is a third of what it was in the late 1940s. Buildings that once held vibrant congregations are now down to a handful of worshippers. Some churches are being converted to lofts. Not all congregations are struggling, of course, but many are.
Lyle Schaller, a church consultant and author of numerous books on church life, says churches that have been meeting at the same address for more than 40 years tend to perpetuate the past, take care of today’s members rather than reach the unchurched and maintain real estate rather than launching new ministries to reach new generations.
He concludes: “Never before in North American church history have there been so many congregations that are vulnerable to this ’40-year syndrome.'”
It’s like a perfect storm: Christendom has ended, the culture is shifting and many of our churches are ill-equipped to face these challenges.
I have to be honest; I’ve sometimes wished for easier times. Yet, despite the challenges, I can’t think of a better time to be the Church in Canada. Culture has rejected nominal Christianity, and that is good. Underneath the rejection of nominal Christianity is a huge spiritual hunger waiting to be filled.
The end of Christendom is not a threat to the gospel. In fact, the gospel first took root in a society much like ours, in a pagan world at a time of massive change. According to the book of Acts, it did very well. The soil of post-Christendom Canada may be more fertile than we realize.
Culture has shifted, but some of that shift is good. Some of the old culture of modernity was bad, and some, but not all, of the new culture is good. After all, the gospel transcends culture. Our challenge is to learn the skills of a missiologist right here at home.
Churches are struggling, but we’re learning to depend on God in new ways, and to rethink what it means to be the Church. New churches are starting, and some older churches are learning what it means to be faithful in a new context. We are learning through experience that God is more than equal to the challenges we face.
The odds are stacked against us, but it’s a good time to remind ourselves that God has never paid much attention to the odds.
If the Church can sense the spiritual longing of culture, think like missiologists and depend on God in new ways, there is every reason to hope, even in the middle of this perfect storm. It is not the easiest time to be a Christian leader in Canada, but there has never been a better time.